Leopold Lojka rests gloved hands on the steering wheel. In his abdomen, a shiver of butterfly wings. This day is to be his proudest yet.
As the visiting archduke and duchess descend the town hall steps, Leopold questions the wisdom of the car’s folded-down hood. But greater minds than his exist to take decisions on such matters. Besides which, the sun is smiling bright on Sarajevo today.
The car rocks on its springs as the imperial couple take their seats behind him, prompting his butterfly to flutter its fragile wings again. A professional chauffeur from Vienna, it is assumed he will know how to handle this car, any car. This is not the moment to ask if he might take her away; just for a few moments alone with her, to get to know her steering, gears, brakes.
They’re off, a river running to their left. Crowds fill the broad pavements. The archduke and his wife will be smiling, he thinks. Waving too. Though perhaps, like him, a little uneasy to see so few soldiers. Again, Leopold dismisses the qualm, reminding himself of those wiser heads. Like that of General Potiorek, governor of the city and mastermind of this royal visit, who sits in the rear-facing seat behind his shoulder.
Unfamiliar with the streets, Leopold stayed up till dawn to study the route. But, following an attempted bombing earlier, changes have been made, and an hour ago a man in a hurry reeled off a new list of unpronounceable road names and turnings. Apparently Potiorek himself made those changes. Surely he will flag them as they approach, save each of them the shame of a wrong turn?
Beneath the tight band of his cap, an irritation of sweat. They are nearing the first turning of the original route. He slows the car and risks a backward glance, but Potiorek is waving to the crowd. Holding back until the last available moment, Leopold must finally commit. One way, or the other. Leaving the wide promenade, he swings the car into the gloom of a high-sided alley.
“No, idiot. Straight on,” the general hisses in his ear. Leopold’s foot hits the brake. “Back up, now!”
A youth stands up from a pavement café, and takes a step towards the car, raising his arm. A flash of sunlight on metal. Potiorek has turned in his seat, is on his knees, screaming in Leopold’s ear, peppering it with spittle. Mercifully the gears engage and the car heaves backwards, but only to jolt to a sickening stop as the engine cuts out.
Splitting the silence that follows: two staccato explosions. And, as the youth turns and runs, Leopold Lojka, royal chauffeur for a day, feels the warm blood of his passengers on the back of his neck.
Leopold’s butterfly has taken flight into the Sarajevo sky. Now the hurricane that will engulf a continent begins to stir.
Winner of Flash 500 Second Quarter 2014.